As recently as three weeks ago, Hearts were being written off in many quarters. Craig Levein out, players not good enough, even club owner Ann Budge felt the ire of disgruntled fans in Tynecastle’s new main stand.
Levein’s team had lost to Hibs, Rangers and Kilmarnock and drawn with Partick Thistle, Ross County and Hamilton in a disappointing run of results. Some supporters began losing patience and questions from critics were increasing both in number and volume.
All the detractors did, unwittingly, was serve to motivate and galvanise everyone at Riccarton. Less than a month on, Hearts head to Perth to face St Johnstone tomorrow feeling buoyant.
Beating Celtic, Dundee and Motherwell without losing a goal stretched their unbeaten run to six matches in the Ladbrokes Premiership. Perceptions have changed dramatically, especially after Sunday’s 4-0 thumping of previously-unbeaten Celtic.
“Sometimes when you are written off or you get stick, it helps. It can galvanise the team,” explained midfielder Ross Callachan. “People start saying: ‘Come on, we can prove them wrong.’ It can actually help you. With the way we’re going now, we are really confident. I know people will talk but we need to do our talking on the park. Hopefully that will make things better for the people who are talking about us.
“We were doing okay in games and then conceding a silly goal. We just needed that wee bit of luck, which came against Motherwell. We just scraped it 1-0 because we scored and then saw the game out. We took confidence from that, which carried forward to the Dundee match and then again against Celtic.
“We’re just building momentum. As a squad, we felt it was always going to come. We were always going to get results. It was just about being patient when luck wasn’t with us. If you keep believing and dig in, results do come.”
What a result Callachan has had since leaving Raith Rovers for his childhood heroes in August. The 24-year-old felt Christmas had come early last weekend when he played a key role in a breathtaking performance against Celtic, helping to end the champions’ 69-game unbeaten domestic run.
“For me, this is amazing. Sunday summed it up,” he smiled. “That was the first time I’d felt that atmosphere playing at Tynecastle. Everyone was talking about it, saying: ‘Wait till we get back to Tynecastle and you hear that atmosphere.’ Sunday just proved it. Days like that are one of the reasons I wanted to play for this club so much.
“You never feel comfortable against Celtic. Even when the third goal went in, I thought: ‘They could maybe still come back here.’ They are that good and have been so strong for the last two years with this unbeaten run. Once the fourth went in, I realised that was it. I could start to enjoy it and take it in. Seeing all the fans and taking in the atmosphere was great. The place was electric.”
Callachan instigated the fourth goal with a piercing run through the Celtic defence to meet David Milinkovic’s weighted pass. However, his control entering the penalty area left much to be desired and he had to settle for winning Hearts a penalty after being impeded by the visiting goalkeeper, Craig Gordon. Milinkovic confidently dispatched the spot-kick into the net to complete the scoring on a momentous afternoon.
“I was thinking I had to take another touch and shoot as I got into the box,” recalled Callachan. “My touch was quite heavy, I went past the keeper and then he’s wiped me out. I felt I had a chance to score but my touch was poor. We at least got a penalty out of it and, at 4-0, the game was then dead and buried.”
Breaking forward beyond the front line is something Callachan wants to do more of. “I’ve always felt I’ve been good at that because I’ve got good energy and enthusiasm to get forward into the box. It’s just learning to time my runs. “Now I want to work on my finishing and put some of these chances in the net.”
The player’s participation in tomorrow’s match is not guaranteed. He was substituted before the end of the Celtic victory because of a thigh strain but is hopeful of declaring his fitness in time to travel to Perth.
“I came off with a wee knock at the end of the Celtic game but, fingers crossed, I’ll be okay to play tomorrow,” he said, adding that Hearts feel able to extend their unbeaten run into 2018. They face Hibs and Aberdeen next week hard on the heels of St Johnstone.
“It’s three tough games but I think it’s possible with the way we’re going just now. We’ve won three games on the bounce and we’ve made Tynecastle a bit of a fortress since we got back there. We just need to keep the results going tomorrow.”
McDiarmid Park is something of a bogey ground for those in maroon, though. Hearts’ record there in recent years is nothing other than horrible, for they haven’t managed a league win in Perth since November 2010. Their solitary victory away at St Johnstone in the intervening seven years came in the Scottish Cup in 2012. Even that required a last-minute penalty by Jamie Hamill to take the tie into extra-time before a Marius Zaliukas winner.
“I didn’t know about that record. The boys haven’t really spoken about it,” said Callachan. “We’re going into the game with a lot of confidence after beating Celtic 4-0. St Johnstone will be on a high as well. They’ve beaten Hibs and Rangers recently. We know what they’re like and what they’re about so we just need to match them. I think we have the talent to get a result.”